Domina – Sky Atlantic

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  This wasn’t bad.  Given that Sky Atlantic aren’t exactly the masters of historical accuracy, I was prepared for all kinds of bizarre goings-on.  When we started with a bride-to-be, our heroine Livia Drusilla, being told to inspect a naked male slave so that she’d know what bits were where before the wedding night, and then overhearing her relatives discussing murdering the bridegroom, I thought, oh dear, here we go.  But, after that, it wasn’t OTT at all.  In fact, some of the second episode felt a bit like a 1970s sitcom, as a leading Roman patrician got in a strop because no-one’d told him the dress code for a party, and he’d been the only one who’d turned up in a toga.  At the said party, the women’d sat at one end of the room, bitching about the decor, and the men’d sat at the other, discussing chariot-racing.  This was after an earlier party, at which the host had explained to Octavian that their toilet was now connected to the aqueduct, so it didn’t smell like the old one did.  I’m not sure that Octavian needed to know this.

In between the parties, the political history was actually pretty accurate, as we saw Livia’s father back the losing side, fighting with Brutus and Cassius against Octavian and Mark Antony, and killing himself after their defeat at Philippi.  It’s a well-known part of Roman history, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone consider its effect on Livia before.  If people write about the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, it’s usually either “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” or accusing Livia and Agrippina of poisoning everyone.  This series is certainly something different.

Impressive array of local actors.  Young Gaius/Octavian/Augustus is from Bolton.  His older self is from Atherton.  His second wife is from Rochdale.  And his chief general is from Wigan.  In fact, young Gaius actually seems to be rocking a “Madchester” 1990 image, with the floppy black hair.  Just needs a hooded top and a pair of Joe Bloggs jeans instead of the maroon toga.

It was rather confusing, because we kept flashing backwards and forwards in time, but a lot of TV series, films and books do that now.  And the Julio-Claudians are confusing generally, because they’re all known by umpteen different names, all have the same names as umpteen other people, and keep changing their partners; but that’s not Sky Atlantic’s fault.

Our heroine Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta, was Octavian (referred to in the programme, accurately as we’re in his early years, as Gaius, but I’m used to thinking of him as Octavian, and his official emperor name was Caesar Augustus)’s third wife.  She was previously married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, the one who got the dress code wrong.  Not to be confused with the Nero, who fiddled whilst Rome burned.  That Nero, the one who fiddled, was directly descended from Livia/Julia, via her son Tiberius, whom she was expecting with her first husband when Gaius/Octavian/Augustus ordered him to divorce her, at the same time as which divorced his own second wife (Scribonia from Rochdale), who was expecting their daughter, also Julia, who later married Tiberius.  Tiberius was Julia’s third husband.  She was previously married to Agrippa from Wigan.  And someone else (not at the same time).  I did say it was confusing.

Anyway, Livia’s a pretty interesting character, who was married to Octavian for over 50 years, held far more power than most other Julio-Claudian women did,  and, depending on what you read, was either a domineering dowager who went around poisoning people or else was a paragon of all the virtues.  There was a lot of talk in this first episode about women only being valued for childbearing and weaving, so I assume this is going to be a feminist take on things.

It wasn’t brilliant, but it certainly wasn’t bad.  I shall keep watching!

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

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I must be the only person who could manage to confuse the Bible with the Cambridge Latin Course.  I have been to Masada, where this book’s set; but I remembered doing something about it at school, and initially thought that the Siege of Masada must be described in the Bible.  It isn’t.  It is, however, described in Stage 29 of the Cambridge Latin Course (the boring bit with Salvius and Haterius), as I belatedly realised.  Then I thought I knew the “Wings of a Dove” psalm, mentioned in the fourth and final section of the book … until I realised that I was actually thinking of the Madness song.  I’ve an idea that the psalm’s mentioned in a Noel Streatfeild book, though – doesn’t Robin Robinson sing it?

Oh well.  The idea of writing about four women inside the fortress of Masada in AD 70-73 (or AD 74, seeing as most sources now set the date a year later than older ones did), their journeys there after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, and their lives there until the end of the Roman siege, was a very interesting one, and I really enjoyed the book.  I believe that there was a TV adaptation of it in the US, although it apparently wasn’t very good.  It’s written in quite a strange way, though … like Philippa Gregory, Alice Hoffman got a bit carried away with the idea of feminine magic, and I ended up feeling as if I were reading a cross between the Bible, The Red Tent, The Da Vinci Code, The Chronicles of Narnia, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The White Princess.  Quite a strange combination.

The book goes with the traditional story, that those inside the fortress committed suicide en masse rather than be captured by the Romans.  Historians aren’t convinced that that’s true, but it’s the version of events that most people will know.   A slave from Wales turns up in the middle of things, which sounded rather unlikely, but apparently archaeologists have found artefacts at Masada which show that a Welsh conscripted legionnaire was there.  On a different note, whilst I’m trying not to let the coronavirus colour everything I read, it was interesting that (in a book published in 2011), people were very concerned about covering their faces whilst treating a sick person, and washing their hands afterwards, in case a demon jumped from the sick person to them; and they also grabbed a load of stuff from the supply stores when the siege began in earnest.

It’s in four parts, about four women whose lives become intertwined as they work in the dovecotes.

Yael is the daughter and sister of Sicarii assassins, the branch of the Zealots who fought against the Romans, and perhaps the most interesting character even if she’s not very appealing.  Revka is a woman whose daughter died after being raped by Roman soldiers, who also attacked her, and whose husband was also killed by the Romans, and who’s caring for her traumatised grandsons.  Aziza is the illegitimate daughter of one of the Sicarii leaders, initially brought up as a boy to protect her from unwanted male attention, but then revealing herself as a woman and becoming involved with first Yael’s brother and then Revka’s widowed son-in-law.  Shirah “the witch of Moab” is Aziza’s mother, and it later turns out that she was also Yael’s nursemaid.  Apart from Revka, they all get involved with men they shouldn’t.

The descriptions of the environment – Jerusalem, the lands they pass through on their way to Masada, and Masada itself, are absolutely superb.  So are the descriptions of their daily life, and their work in the dovecotes, and the explanations of the different sects and their different practices.  However, some of the “magic” stuff does go a bit OTT.  The idea of goddess-worship and feminine magic, and their being suppressed by the religious authorities, which also played a big part in The Da Vinci Code, is fascinating up to a point, but talking about mysterious magical books of spells which Noah and or Moses had just sounded a lot more Bedknobs and Broomsticks than the Bible, and just went too far.  The symbolism went overboard as well.

That aside, it was really a very good read.  The passage of time came across very well – all the talk about the different months and what was associated with each one.  I’m familiar with the Hebrew term “Rosh Chodesh”, the first day of the month, but I hadn’t realised that, according to the Bible, the start of each month was supposed to be a minor holiday.  The interpretation of it here is that the coming of the new moon represents light triumphing over darkness, and reminds people that nothing stays the same and things move on, which definitely had overtones of what the Queen said in her Easter speech.  And I now gather (thank you, Wikipedia) that there was a later tradition that women didn’t work on the first day of each month.  I like that idea 😉 .

So – in summary, I’d have liked a bit more history and bit less mystery/magic, but it was still a very good book.  Thank you to BookBub and Kindle Daily Deals – you’re being very helpful as lockdown goes on!  If anyone’s read this, thanks for reading, and stay safe x.

Britannia, Season 2 – Sky Atlantic

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 I’ve finally watched the first episode of the second series, in which the Emperor Claudius, speaking in a Lancashire accent and looking strangely like Mick from “Benidorm”,  rode round Britannia on an elephant, dictating fake news to his scribe in between complaining about his piles.  He then ended up crawling around naked after falling victim to a poisoning and near-drowning by David Morrissey.  This was odd, as David had seemed like a loyal servant of the Empire, promoting the spread of Roman religion by making people swear on the names of Roman gods that they hadn’t been using the posh baths as a toilet.  Meanwhile, a man balancing a birdcage on his head did a lot of chanting in Welsh (this was to show that he wasn’t speaking Latin), prior to his friend jumping off a cliff to see if she could fly.  It didn’t go well.  “Oh shit,” intoned Birdcage Man (in English), whereupon the first episode ended.

I’ve got no idea where this is going – especially as we’d earlier learnt that David (sorry, Aulus Plautius) was an old mate of Pontius Pilate’s and had intervened to stop the Crucifixion – but I’m rather put out by the continued failure to mention King Cogidubnus.  It is beyond stupid.  However, if you think of it as being a bit like a Carry On film – remember the one in which Julius Caesar comes to Britannia, moans about the weather, and then goes off to Egypt to meet Alma from “Coronation Street” ? – then it’s quite funny in a way, although the Carry On films were a lot funnier and didn’t involve people swearing in practically every sentence.

Some bits of it were genuinely amusing, notably when Claudius visited a building site and told his scribe to send news back to Rome that he’d seen a glorious marble temple dedicated in his honour, but I don’t think it was meant to be funny, at least not in a Carry On type way.  I don’t know what it was meant to be.  It was just weird.  There are another nine episodes of this, although there are so many adverts that, when you fast forward them, each episode doesn’t take that long to watch.  As Magnus Magnusson would have said, I’ve started so I’ll finish …